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Alternate History of Horror. Part XIII: Bad Karma

By Ryan Fleming

Sales of chainsaws rose after the film.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, US horror cinema was rapidly changing from stories that happened in an historical, vaguely European setting to stories that happened in the here and now, possibly right down the street. The changes in horror cinema coincided, though perhaps not coincidentally, with social and political upheaval both in their home country and internationally. These trends, along with a final abandonment of the restrictive Production Code in 1968, created an environment in which horror films began to address social and political issues via allegory. It was the beginning of a trend which continues, albeit with ebbs and flows, to the latest horror films.

Many of the seminal and best remembered of those 1960s-1970s films were independent films made by very young directors. The content of their films is very informed by the socio-political context in which they began their careers. As Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), explained in the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare: “All that bad karma has to go somewhere.” As these directors went on to bigger successes, and horror found its next big thing, the social aspect of horror films was abandoned, albeit with a few exceptions. Since the middle of the 2010s, again responding to a wider socio-political context, horror films as social commentary became prominent once more.

Though it took until the time of the first Moon landings for American horror films for American horror films to begin embracing their fiction in a wider social context, the genre was not without its precedents. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was in part inspired by the recent experiments of Luigi Galvani and James Lind. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) owes much to the late 19th Century UK obsession with invasion literature. Robert Wienne’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) was heavily informed by its screenwriters’ military experiences during the First World War. It would take far wider social and political upheaval before mainstream US horror cinema would rediscover such themes.

Informed by the experiences of the First World War.

Poppies at the Tower of London, 2014. Each poppy represents a British fatality of WWI.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As horror films embraced the modern day as a setting, it was accompanied by the embracing of modern themes. This was the case from the biggest Hollywood pictures, as in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) oblique references to the assassinated President Kennedy and the place of religion in the modern world, to small, independent pictures. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was foremost among them with its newsreel footage recalling what most Americans saw on the news from the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights struggle at home. The latter also hung heavily over the film’s nihilistic ending, which sees African American hero Ben (Duane Jones) gunned down by a redneck posse mistaking him for a zombie.

Night of the Living Dead brought a subversive slant to the American horror film not only in its temporal setting, but also by showing that Pennsylvania could be just as terrifying as Transylvania. Director George A Romero had a background in short films and commercials, with his most notable work prior to introducing the zombie apocalypse perhaps being a segment of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The new level of violence set by the man who filmed Fred Rogers getting a tonsillectomy was very quickly pushed to its absolute limit with 1972’s The Last House on the Left. An exploitation film directed by Wes Craven, a former humanities professor who left academia for the more lucrative world of pornographic films, and produced by Sean S Cunningham, a Broadway director who sought the similar bright lights of the pornography world. Seeking to portray violence, in a plot lifted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring, in as realistic a way as possible. That violence was interspersed with scenes of slapstick comedy and earned the final effort much derision. There was so much outrage that it nearly ended Craven’s career, with at least one opinion being that he was as bad as a Communist plot to corrupt America’s youth.

In contrast to The Last House on the Left, Tobe Hooper set out to limit the amount of onscreen gore from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the hopes of securing a PG rating. If anything, the lack of blood and what is achieved by suggestion made by the film even more disturbing than if buckets of blood had been thrown at the camera. The Texas-raised Hooper drew upon stories told to him by Wisconsin relatives of the crimes of Ed Gein in creating the film’s villains. Gein would also inspire the antagonists in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960) and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (1988, filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1991). Texas Chainsaw Massacre continued the naturalistic method of filming seen in independent horror films and continued the subversive themes of Romero’s work. Witness the clan of cannibals, mechanised out of work at the slaughterhouse, forming a parody of a typical sitcom nuclear family when they sit down to dinner. Hooper’s film proved quickly influential, and offered Wes Craven another chance at a career when he put his own spin on the idea in The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Craven’s effort kept the cannibal family but drew more inspiration from the Scottish legend Sawney Bean and sets its action in the Nevada desert.

The Hills Have Eyes II.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The independently made, naturalistically filmed horror films of the 1970s were not limited to the United States. In Canada, a luxury apartment complex outside of Montreal became the setting for Shivers. It was an early entry into the body horror subgenre of horror fiction, concerning an outbreak of parasites that causes unbridled sexually aggressive tendencies in those infected. It was directed by David Cronenberg and produced by Ivan Reitman and was financed in part by the Canadian Film Development Corporation. The latter resulted in some controversy, as to whether such a film should be financed by public money, even being debated in the Canadian Parliament. Cronenberg bore the brunt of the controversy, finding further funding difficult and even finding himself evicted from his Toronto apartment due to a “morality clause” included in the lease. Like Craven and Cunningham, Cronenberg and Reitman would resume their careers in short order, and perhaps in all cases, their youthful infamy played some role in their later success. Can a line be drawn from Night of the Living Dead through Shivers all the way to Ghostbusters?

As the 1970s wore on, horror had become an eclectic, diverse genre the likes of which had not been seen before on film. That was about to change, but not before George A Romero returned to his first film in its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead. Romero had kept making horror films throughout the 1970s: The Crazies (1973), concerning an epidemic of homicidal madness that touches upon similar themes as his Dead films, and Martin (1978), a thoroughly modern look at vampires, being two of them. The subversive, satirical bent of these independent horror films reached a crescendo with Dawn of the Dead, which saw the cannibalistic revenants lay siege to a small group of survivors barricaded inside that bastion of US consumer capitalism: the shopping mall. The iconic setting of a zombie apocalypse would later be used by Capcom in their 2006 video game Dead Rising, and later led to the landmark court ruling that the concept of human battling zombies in a mall was not protectable under copyright. Dawn of the Dead also represents a confluence of various existing and encroaching trends in horror films, both in the United States and Europe. It was co-financed by Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, best known for his lurid giallo thrillers, in exchange for the international distribution rights. Released as Zombi in Italy, it would receive numerous unofficial sequels in that country, starting with Zombi 2 (1979).

Special effects for Dawn of the Dead were handled by Tom Savini, a Vietnam War combat photographer who had been tutored in special makeup effects by Dick Smith, who had been responsible for aging Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and making Linda Blair’s head spin in The Exorcist (1973). Dawn of the Dead would lead to a long and prominent career in horror movie effects, becoming connected with the slasher subgenre of horror films during the 1980s. That strand has been into popularity by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but their rise, fall, rise, and fall are a tale for another day.

The maverick independent directors pushing the envelope for what had been done previously in American horror films brought a lot of change and built a lasting legacy. At the same time as the boundaries were being pushed, it should be noted that demographically they were largely the same as most of the other American directors working in the Hollywood mainstream: white, male, and college educated. Though it would take some time for demographics behind the cameras to catch up with those in front, the 1970s did see another trend emerge in African-American character driven horror films. These were a subset of the wider blaxploitation carze in American film, which themselves were evolutions of the older race films – films produced during the first half of the 1900s targeted towards African-American audiences and starring all-black casts.

Even during the days of race films, horror did not go untouched. The earliest science fiction horror film to feature an all black cast was 1940’s Son of Ingagi. Horror films driven by mostly black casts disappeared with race films in general by the mid-1950s. By the early 1970s, the blaxploitations genre had arrived, heralded by Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the more mainstream Hollywood Shaft (both 1971). The themes of most of these films has been debated since their release, but it is undeniable that after originally being aimed at African-American audiences that they found wider appeal. Never ones to miss a trick, the producers of horror B-features took note and sought to hop aboard the bandwagon. Amongst those cashing in were the venerable American International Pictures, who released The Thing With Two Heads (1972), Blacula (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), Abby (1974), and J. D.’s Revenge (1976). Many of these were African-American driven spins on famous horror tales. Blacula on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) (Count Dracula appears as a separate character in that film); Abby on William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971); Blackenstein on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); and Dr Black, Mr Hyde on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). And though mostly helmed by white directors, there were some exceptions such as William Crain (Blacula and Dr Black, Mr Hyde) and Bill Gunn, director of Ganja & Hess (1973). Ganja & Hess also stared Duane Jones, in his only other lead role aside from Night of the Living Dead.

The success of The Exorcist in 1973 may have spelt the beginning of the end for the blaxploitation movement. Originally, distributors had not released the film in African-American neighbourhoods, feeling that the local audiences would not care to see a film featuring no black characters. When it transpired that these cinemagoers would travel to where it was being screened, the exclusion was quickly abandoned. Film historian Ed Guerrero has speculated that this might have caused Hollywood studios to reduce and then end support for blaxploitation movies, since The Exorcist proved that black audiences would watch films without content geared specifically to them. Once studio support ended, African-American driven horror films fell into hibernation again. 1992 saw a sidestep of a revival from an unlikely source material: a short story originally set amongst the council flats of Merseyside. When adapting Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, director Bernard Rose decided to change the setting from the author’s native Liverpool to the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. With the change in location came a change in theme from the UK class system to race in the United States, the end result being Candyman (1992). Like Candyman, Blade (1998) featured an African-American title character, this time the hero in the adaptation of Marvel’s horror superhero, but again was helmed by a white director. 1995’s Tales from the Hood was an exception, directed by Rusty Cundieff and produced by Spike Lee. An anthology film whose tales featured police corruption, racist politicians, and gang violence; it was adapted from a one-act play Cundieff had performed in Los Angeles.

Spike Lee.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Cundieff looked to make a sequel to Tales from the Hood shortly after the initial film’s release but found that finance was not forthcoming. That would change in the 2010s and the film saw two belated sequels released in 2018 and 2020. The reason for the change after so many years was the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Get Out was both a critical and commercial success, grossing more than $250 million off a $4.5 million budget. Now that there was evidence that Hollywood could easily understand, what had previously been a largely white targeted genre saw more and more example of films starring African-American actors with African-American writers and/or directors. Peele followed Get Out with Us (2019) and Nope (2022). There was also Sweetheart (2019), directed by J.D. Dillard, and Candyman (2021), a seqoot to the 1990s film, ignoring the long-forgotten 1990s sequels, directed by Nia DaCosta. Despite its current prominence, as shown with the earlier examples, this could have been recognised far earlier. If the success of The Exorcist had not meant studios wholly withdrew support from blaxploitation films, especially horror ones. If Tales from the Hood had gotten a wider release, or if the Candyman sequels had been made with the same intent of the first.

Get Out’s success may be most prominantly associated with further African-American driven horror films, but its success also heralded the return of horror films blending the usual scares with thematic elements drawn from social issues of the day. Though so often labelled with the execrable term “elevated horror”, which will be torn to shreds in a future article, many of these films don’t forget the core of the genre is to scare its audience. There are even those that don’t forget to have a sense of fun, whilst simultaneously blending horror with social issues, science fiction with political satire, and wrapping everything in something akin to an action movie.

Though only arising to prominence in the modern day following the release of Get Out, the blend of horror and social issues has seen plenty of precedent. Even as recent to Get Out as 2013, there were films that mixed the two, along with mixing science fiction dystopia, satire of current US politics, and action. All these elements are mixed up together in a single series, whose elements are so disparate, they are usually designated as dystopian action horror, with not even two genre labels being able to accurately describe them. Despite the horror elements of The Purge franchise being most apparent in the first installment released in 2013 and reduced since, it continues the old pulp tradition of mixing genres as one desires.

Not remembered as such now, the original instalment of The Purge when stripped of its dystopian and satirical elements, was already cashing in on another brief horror trend. Starting with The Strangers (2008), there was a very brief boom in home invasion themed horror films. Aside from The Strangers and The Purge, another famous entrant in that subgenre was You’re Next (2011), which brought director Adam Wingard, later to direct Godzilla vs Kong (2021) to note. The Purge originally used the late 2000s Great Recession and the divisions between the poor and rich in society as its main thematic element. That continued in its first sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014), but the home invasion element was abandoned, and the film owes more to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) than Halloween (1978). The franchise might have quickly run out of material had real life politics not kept eagerly providing it. 2016 saw the release of The Purge: Election Year, though the outcome of the election in the horror dystopia had a happier ending than the real life United States presidential election during the same year. Unable to keep up with real life, The First Purge (2018) was instead a prequel and since it is set in alternate 2010s, the franchise could add alternate history to its list of genres. The Forever Purge (2021) continued the story from Election Year, with the grim message that despite the hopeful ending of the earlier film, the electorate would vote to bring back the dystopia if given the opportunity.

Many different social themes become more prominent in the 2010s. One of the most prominent example It Follows (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell, which used a sort of sexually transmitted curse that remained unexplained and open to interpretations that it was a metaphor for sexually transmitted infections, sexual liberation, and anxieties about intimacy. The notion that leaving things largely unexplained opening up the doors to conflicting interpretations became stereotypical in the horror films distributed by A24, including The Witch (2015), by Robert Eggers; Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), both by Ari Aster. In other examples, the metaphor is more readily apparent, as in Leigh Whannell’s 2020 take on HG Wells’ The Invisible Man (1987) which placed the title character in the context of domestic abuse. Similarly, The Babadook (2014), by Jennifer Kent, leans heavily into its titular monster being a metaphor for the grief of the main characters. Years after its original release when it had been kept alive as an internet meme, the character was adopted, originally purely tongue-in-cheek, which grew to the point that theatres in Los Angeles held charity screenings of the film during Pride Month. LGBTQ+ themes, explicit ones to be exact, also became more apparent in horror films up to the release of They/Them (2022), which took a pat setup of murders at a camp only instead of an abandoned summer camp it was a conversion camp.

These themes become more readily apparent in the 2010s but they had been there, as subtext, for years prior. All the way back to Dracula’s Daughter (1936) which fell foul of the Production Code for the seemingly lesbian portrayal of the title character. Later, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) had always been cited for having over-homoerotic themes. Originally, it was merely a punchline such as being listed in 2009 by as the most unintentionally gay horror movie, but it has come in for more serious examination since that time. As with other examples discussed so far, the themes have always been there, it’s just that society finally grew up enough to have them front and centre. It is also the case with more and more female directors of horror films such as DaCosta and Kent, with examples from prior decades such as Amy Holden Jones, director of The Slumber Party Massacre (1982); Kathryn Bigelow, director of Near Dark (1987); and Mary Lambert, director of Pet Sematary (1989). There have always been those that will forge their own path or tell the stories they want, but wider western society is now more readily accepting. Horror specifically is often vilified for this, despite examples to the contrary, and continues to be disregarded with any horror film managing to achieve greater artistic merit or be layered with social themes being given the label of “elevated horror”.

It used to be the case that any horror film that manages major critical or commercial success would be classified as a thriller. See Psycho (1960), Jaws (1975), or The Silence of the Lambs (1991). There are still those who would refuse to accept Alien (1979) as a horror film despite it being about a grotesque monster that stalks and kills people through the shadowy corridors of a creaky old structure. Since it’s a spaceship, that makes it fiction goes the logic. The notion of “elevated horror” fulfils a similar function where people that are dismissive of horror are unable to deny they enjoyed a horror film, but there is not a different genre label that can be used in its place.

Horror fiction can be used as allegory in the same way fantasy or science fiction can. It has been the case since its origins in Victorian Gothic literature. Its use in this way has seen its peaks and troughs like any trend in genre fiction. In mainstream, widely released horror content, specifically films, these peaks are aligned with wider awareness and concern over social issues in the society in which they are made. For US horror films, these coincide with the late 1960s into the 1970s and since the mid-2010s, but they did not spring forth from a vacuum.

The boom in independent horror films in the decade between 1968 and 1978 saw many prominent efforts from future famous directors that pushed envelopes as far as what was acceptable for the portrayal of violence on screen. At the same time, these films used their stories as metaphors for the political issues of the day. The same era saw another boom, one in horror films driven by African-American casts and in some instances directed by African-American directors. Those trends ended as the 1970s waned and the 1980s came knocking at the cabin door. This did not have to be the case. A revival, and expansion, of these since the 2010s has managed to produce films so objectively good and thematically important that a new term had to be invented for people that don’t like horror films to praise them.

The asinine concept of ‘elevated horror’ will be a topic for future vituperation in a far later article in this series. It will be part of a further look at the 2010s slew of horror films. Before then, the craze that managed to become the main thing in horror during the 1980s will be the topic of a far earlier article. Hockey masks are optional but encouraged. Next, however, will be a look at another 1970s trend in horror fiction, one with a far more literary than cinematic bent. It was the decade that horror novels returned to vogue, starting with a novel of a girl possessed of a terrifying power.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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